Vol. 1, Issue 11
Transporting electricity from Quebec to southern New Hampshire requires a massive public relations effort. The state’s electric utility is taking the lead.
hink it’s hard to build a $1-billion electric power line that stretches across national borders? Try selling the concept to a skeptical public.
At Public Service of New Hampshire, that’s exactly what they’re doing. And if the early returns are any indication, their playbook may become required reading for every public utility in the U.S.
Patrick McDermott, economic and community development manager for Public Service of New Hampshire, says that “leveraging economic development relationships” and pursuing a concerted communications strategy are the keys to securing public support.
McDermott outlined PSNH’s strategy during a Feb. 24 presentation at the Utility Economic Development Association’s Winter Forum in Atlanta. “The dynamics of a large project change every day,” he said. The key is staying on message and delivering it consistently to all stakeholders throughout the planning and approval process.
The proposal, which has received limited U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval, calls for building a high-voltage power line through New Hampshire that would transmit at least 1,200 megawatts of Hydro-Quebec power from Canada to southern New England.
A new contract with Hydro-Quebec could supply enough electricity to meet demand in about a million homes in New England. Northeast Utilities, NSTAR and Hydro-Quebec are the lead entities in the project. PSNH is a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities.
“This would be a direct-current line from Quebec through New Hampshire,” said McDermott. “The power is all from renewable sources: 97 percent of Hydro-Quebec power is from hydroelectric plants and 3 percent is from nuclear.”
Developers say the project will cost $1 billion and take 3 to 4 years to complete. The project is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 4 million to 6 million short tons per year by replacing gas-fired electricity generation in New England.
The new line would connect the Des Cantons substation in southern Quebec with a point yet to be determined in southern New Hampshire.
FERC has approved a participant-funded approach to the power line, says McDermott. “If you get 20 percent of the power,
you pay for 20 percent of the line.”
PSNH and its project partners filed for FERC approval on Dec. 15, 2008, “when we were right in the middle of a huge ice storm,” said McDermott. “We were working 14 hours a day.”
Project Faces Various Challenges
Most of the public concerns stem from groups in northern New Hampshire, a region known as the North Country. “This is an economically challenged area. The pulp and paper industry are down and almost gone in this heavily forested region,”
The proposed power line from Quebec to southern New Hampshire would run through the White Mountains National Forest. Mount Washington, one of the windiest places on earth, is the signature natural landmark of this scenic wilderness.Photo: White Mountains Attractions (www.VisitWhiteMountains.com)
McDermott noted. “The industrial development strategy there now is to move to wood-chip bio-mass production
. So, one question coming from the North Country is, would this new power line preclude the need for locally generated renewable power?”
New Hampshire’s renewable portfolio standard mandates that the state draw 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. “By law, large-scale Canadian hydro-power does not qualify as renewable,” said McDermott. “But we do expect this power to come into New England at or below market in price.”
For now, PSNH is focusing its efforts on a communications strategy targeting news media, environmental groups, state and federal agencies and statewide organizations.
“We have developed a key opinion leader matrix and talking points,” McDermott adds. “We still do not know where the crossing will be at the Canadian border, but we do know that the line will cross over 140 miles of New Hampshire. It will travel through the White Mountains National Forest, which spans the entire width of the state. That is a challenge for us to overcome.”
PSNH plans to overcome environmental objections by emphasizing the positive aspects of the project. “The power that we will deliver will be low-cost, low-carbon, renewable energy and we will use existing right-of-way,” McDermott said. “The negatives are that this project will not generate a lot of property taxes. Most of that will come from the converter station, which is a $200-million-plus investment. The line doesn’t help us reach our RPS, and the need for additional power currently doesn’t exist.”
The project also may have to fend off competition from a proposed Quebec-to-New York City power line being pushed by a group called Transmission Developers. A $3.8-billion project, the 2,000-megawatt power line would stretch from Montreal’s south shore to the Big Apple.
In New Hampshire, most of the public’s questions concern the proposed power line’s route, the border crossing, the width of the project right-of-way, its impact on First Nation tribes, and environmental issues involving the Appalachian Trail and the national forest.
“We are in a quiet period now as we focus on doing the routing analysis and completing the deal for a purchase power agreement,” said McDermott. “We also need a transmission service agreement, including details on how we pay for the line.”
Sharing Lessons With Other Utilities
Still, the PSNH manager says his company has learned valuable lessons from the process. “The most important lesson we learned is the value of leveraging existing relationships,” he said. “We know this project won’t be completed until the end of 2014, so we learned right away that being involved in the community is very important.”
Offering advice to other electric utilities that may be considering large-scale infrastructure upgrades, McDermott said:
- “Speak to your friends first.”
- “Go to the local media early.”
- “Keep to a high-level, consistent message.”
- “Get information out even if you do not have all the answers.”
- “Listen carefully.”
- “Be honest at all times.”
- “Ask for input from others and use it.”
- “Roll out information quickly.”
- “Target the most important brokers and stakeholders.”
- “Constantly re-evaluate your strategy.”
- “Make friends before you need them.”
- “Keep in constant contact with all stakeholders.”
Among those in the “targeted audience” for PSNH are county commissioners, community college presidents, local business leaders, county economic development directors and the governor’s staff for northern New Hampshire.
Other targeted groups are the North Country Council, state parks, New Hampshire Fish & Game Department, Northern Forest Center, New Hampshire Business & Industry Association, state Department of Historical Resources, state economic development commissioner’s office and the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
One major ally is U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who supports the planned power line and advocates using federal stimulus dollars to help pay for it.
The bottom line, says McDermott, is simple: “The relationships that we develop in our regular economic development work have great strategic value to the corporation for purposes in addition to economic development.”
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